On Philosophy

June 25, 2006

If Not Causation Then What?

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:08 am

I have earlier presented the idea that causation is not a part of the structure of the world, but simply a convenient abstraction that we create. (see here) However if causation isn’t real what is? How do we explain the regularities we observe in nature without it?

To begin we must give up our now-centric view of the universe. By that I mean that we must consider the universe as a whole, and not simply the slice of time we are currently experiencing. At the moment physical laws support the view that time is simply another dimension, much like that of space. Moreover the future and the past seem to equally exist (although the progression of events doesn’t seem to rely on future states in any way). If you don’t believe that the future already exists then one must explain how the simultaneity plane of a moving observer can include events that only exist in a future simultaneity plane of a stationary observer. Of course this information can never reach the stationary observer before the future actually happens. However this still leads to the conclusion that future events must already exist, unless one wants to hold a view that somehow future events are created whenever an observer changes speed. (For a better explanation of this effect see The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene.)

With this in mind let us consider a much simpler universe such that we can think about what it would be like to observe it from a perspective not embedded in a particular instant. I have drawn a picture of such a simple universe, in which each gray line represents one instant of time.

As you can see the matter in this universe obeys a very predictable pattern; in any given instant there will be a dot if in the previous instant exactly one of its neighboring spaces contained a dot. Someone living in this universe however would not see the pattern this way. Instead they would formulate laws about the placement of dots, and such laws would describe the dots as coming into existence and moving about over time. We can even see how dots in various instants can be described as the “cause” of later dots (if previous lines in the pattern hadn’t contained a certain configuration the pattern wouldn’t be extended in the same fashion).

However from our position outside time with respect to this universe we can see that there is no cause and effect, and no change, only the pattern. Of course we can ask a different set of questions about why one pattern exists versus some other, and we should expect an answer containing some reference to the shape of spacetime/cosmological constants/ect, but at this point we have left causation long behind.

This also shows why asking about the cause of the beginning of the universe is meaningless. Anyone living in the dot-world that I have presented earlier may make the observation that a dot is always “caused” by some other dot (they do not come from nowhere). Since they also can infer that at some point there must be a first dot they may feel justified in asking “what is the cause of the first dot?” This line of questioning merely shows that the abstraction of causation isn’t suitable for all circumstances. The pattern exists, and the first dot is simply a special point in the pattern with no preceding points. Although it is true that an edge may be considered usual it is certainly not impossible. For example if the length of a piece of paper was time, and the width space we wouldn’t wonder why there was a top or bottom edge, it is simply the way the paper is structured. We only think time is more mysterious because we experience it differently than we experience space; this difference doesn’t reveal a fundamental difference between time or space, or some special property of time, simply a special property of our perception.

Obviously our universe considered as a whole contains a much more complicated pattern than the simple universe that I have used here as an example. It is even possible that our “pattern” is laid out in such a way that each instant “agrees” with future events as well as past ones (if time travel is possible). Of course my description of the universe as a whole existing “all at once” may leave you wondering why we experience time as a succession of moments. Why do we only experience one instant and not the future and the past as well? In order to keep this post within a reasonable length I won’t provide you with the answer now (wait a few days), but I will mention that it has to do with the physical nature of our minds and how events are structured.


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